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  • The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia
  • Nikolas Gvosdev
The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia. By Wallace L. Daniel. [Eugenia and Hugh M. Stewart '26 Series on Eastern Europe.] (College Station: Texas A&M University Press. 2006. Pp. xvi, 251. $29.95.)

Most works that assess the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in contemporary post-Soviet society gravitate to one of two approaches: hostile (the Church is a tool of the government, an obstacle to reform, progress, and democratization) or hagiographical (the Church is the fount of Russian culture and values and the most trusted institution in Russian society). Baylor University's Wallace L. Daniel steers between both extremes; The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia presents a complete picture from someone who, while sympathetic to the Church, does not whitewash some of the serious problems it faces.

Daniel is a long-time observer of the Russian religious scene, and he constructs his examination of the role played by the Orthodox Church in Russian society via four case studies—the reform-minded priest who tried to create a new type of parish community based on the vision of the early twentieth-century Russian theologians; the Soviet scientist-turned-abbess who recreated a living, thriving women's monastic community at the museum complex of the Novodevichy Monstery; the traditionalist pastor charged with re-establishing the parish at Moscow University; and the journalist who inaugurated the first regular coverage of religion at one of Russia's leading newspapers. In particular, his reliance on first-person interviews gives a much richer picture of church life than would be obtained from documentary sources—although it must be noted that his examples are all Moscow-based.

Daniel captures the feeling of many within the official Church that the role of civil society is not to act as an oppositional check on the state, but rather to [End Page 170] work in close partnership to pursue shared goals. To paraphrase Fareed Zakaria, the Church is a proponent of what we might term an "illiberal civil society"—and Daniel's work explores further what the ramifications of this might be.

One problem with this book is that it covers only the Yeltsin period and the first term of the Putin administration (to 2003). Since then, the strong levels of support for Putin's regime have decreased the importance of the Church as a source of legitimacy. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin can claim the mantle of being a faithful Russian Orthodox Christian without having to cede much political initiative to the Church hierarchy.

More attention could also have been paid to questions of "the next generation"—not least of which will be who will succeed Aleksy II as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church—a transition some feel will be just as important for the future of Russia as the political succession after Putin leaves office in 2008. What will be the future of the "case studies" Daniel discusses? Judith Kornblatt's essay in the spring 2005 issue of the Toronto Slavic Quarterly on what has happened to the "spiritual children" of Father Alexander Men, a leading "dissident" priest of the late Soviet era fifteen years after his death questions "whether his legacy has had a lasting effect on the Church" and notes that his followers have moved in different directions, with some even leaving the official Church. And this raises the point as to what extent the Russian Christian spiritual tradition, which up to this point has been almost exclusively identified with the Russian Orthodox Church, will be claimed by groups outside the official Church structure—including a growing number of Russian Protestants. Will the Orthodox Church always have a "special role" in Russian society—or could it be marginalized as, say, the state Lutheran Churches of Scandinavia?

Daniel concludes on an optimistic note, that the "green shoots" of spiritual revival can help stabilize Russian civil society—but acknowledges that we are only at "the beginning" of such an evolution. Events over the next decade will show whether this is going to be the case.

Nikolas Gvosdev
The National Interest (Editor)


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